Are people “objects”?

Another day, another YouTube video, another scroll-down to the comments section and yet another question I’m left asking.

The video I was watching told the story of a young couple, both of whom are transgender – not that you’d know that unless you knew them personally or had watched the video.

I scrolled down to the comments section, and there were at least a couple of people asking:

“So what are they?”

Not who, but what! Did this make them gay, straight, pansexual…?

It got me to question why some people feel the need to label other people as if they were objects. I came to think of it this way:

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This is commonly known as a Vinyl Record. It is a disc made of polyvinyl chloride with an etched spiral groove from which analogue sound can be reproduced.

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This can also be described as a vinyl record as it has the same characteristics as the one above. The grooves look identical to the casual observer but there is a major difference between the two – one plays a recording of Scoundrel Days by a-ha, the other Legion by Mark Shreeve. We can verify this by listening to the original master copies of each recording and comparing them to the signal etched in the grooves.

They are objects. They also have labels telling you what they are, so you can easily tell at a glance whether you are about to listen to a-ha or Mark Shreeve. Vinyl records are static and not sentient – the a-ha record will always play the same music every time, as will the Mark Shreeve record. Vinyl records come in all shapes, sizes and colours but, as long as they are made of polyvinyl chloride and have an analogue signal etched into a spiral groove, they will always be Vinyl records.

These are humans. Unlike Vinyl records, they are sentient and not static in that their behaviour is not so accurately predictable. Talk to either of them about a subject, and talk to them about the same subject a month later, and you may find that their two answers differ. Their sentience gives them what’s called a personality, and this personality will be significantly different when compared to other humans.

They can be divided into sub-groups called male and female based on their respective biology, but in terms of personality, the distinction is not so clear. Ryan and Jasmine have biological differences, but there will be areas of their personalities that they share with the other.

But all that is a rather long-winded explanation.

Unlike Vinyl records, human beings are not produced to serve a single, predictable function. They are not cut to spec, nor are they mass-produced – no two humans are entirely identical, ergo they are not objects and cannot be labelled as such.

So, to answer the question of what they are, just so you can give them the appropriate label, there is only one answer:

Humans.

Gender Variance and Bullying: A Quick Response

Picture courtesy of Queens University in Kingston Ontario
Picture courtesy of Queens University, Kingston Ontario

I’m just going to write a very quick post here, again based on videos I’ve watched and comments I’ve read.

It appears some people believe that, if a child shows signs of gender variance, it is the parents responsibility to force their child into conformity. By allowing their child’s variance to continue, they are setting their child up to a life of social exclusion, bullying and maybe even physical assault. In doing so, they are failing to protect their child from potential danger.

If that’s the way you feel, I believe you have your priorities the wrong way round. That is tantamount to admitting that is is not acceptable to raise a gender-variant child, but it is acceptable to raise a sociopath with little-to-no empathy, who believes it is okay to police other people’s appearance and behaviour with physical and psychological abuse. If that’s what you teach your children, then you are setting them up on a path that may lead to criminal behaviour.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I am all in favour of gender-neutral bathrooms under certain conditions, but never mentioned what those conditions were. Well, they tie in with what I mentioned above. A lot of my opinions are echoed in this video:

There is a perfectly-rational reason why some women are concerned for their safety in such bathrooms, and so my main condition is something of a root-cause analysis: we stop teaching men and boys all this macho, patriarchal bullshit. You do not need to be highly-intelligent to know that it is wrong to assault women just because you are bigger and stronger than them. Being born a man does not give you this right!

 

“You *are* that crazy, they weren’t born that way”

I recently watched another TEDx video presented by Deborah Siegel on the subject of gendering children. In the video she explained how, as a parent of mixed-sex twins, she was trying to raise them without the typical gender expectations prevalent in the US. I’m not going to say much about the video itself but, just to re-iterate, I do believe in children being allowed to be children rather than segregated into boys and girls – especially at pre-school age. I don’t often talk about my own children on the internet, but at present, my nine year-old son is a lot like me: passive, honest, logical, technical and clued in on the digital world. He is, without doubt, an introverted boy just as I was at that age. My four year-old daughter, on the other hand, is a bit of a blank canvas. Ask her the question, and she will tell you that she is a girl, but a stereotypical girl she is not. While she loves Disney, Frozen and Baby Annabel, she also loves watching Fireman Sam and Horrid Henry, just as her older brother used to, and has developed quite the taste for toilet humour. We may joke about her being “un-ladylike”, but we can’t deny that it makes us both laugh, and she absolutely loves making us laugh. We just let them be who they want to be.

What I’m going to do is throw a bucket of cold water on some of the comments that appear below the video. Comments from people who are, I believe, not parents themselves.

“‘Gender, the idea that someone or something is masculine or feminine is a social construct which is a fancy word for made up.’ Of course that is true if only you ignore our history entirely!”

At the start of the video, Deborah very clearly said that she was a scientist. She defintely did not say that she was a historian. History allows us to learn about where we came from in order to influence where we go in the future, and the same is true here. Gender norms may have had value in decades past, but that doesn’t automatically mean they should continue to do so. The effects of a more gender-blind society is very much unwritten, and can only be determined by future history – personally, I can’t see how segregating children has any effect other than to emphasise we are in a very binary “us vs. them” society,

“There is a reason we have picked up on what boys tend to like and what girls tend to like because most of the time boys do act one way and most of the time girls do act the other, also most of the time sex=gender, but sometimes, when it doesn’t we like to equate this as proof that gender is just something that we made up when in reality we have only exaggerated it, gender has always been a real phenomenon and we can say that it’s all made up but then where do transgender people fit into this world?”

Okay, for a start, learn how to structure sentences and use punctuation. Secondly, we cannot ignore the effects our media has on children. Switch on any children’s TV channel and you will see a rather clear gender-line in advertising: Boys play with Hot Wheels and Monster Trucks, girls play with dolls and anything creative. The only real gender-neutral advertising I see is with things like Play-doh and board games. The only way to determine whether gender is a real phenomenon is to study children who have been left completely to their own devices without parental or media bias. Good luck in finding them.

As for where Transgender people fit into this world, we’re not so much in a different ball-park, but in a different sport altogether. I’d be as curious as anybody to understand how sociocultral gender norms influence one’s decision to change their gender, but until such a study is completed, individual liberty prevails.

“I feel so sorry for those poor children with that crazy mother. She’s gonna make him wear a dress until he loves it.”

If you’d have watched until the end of the video, you’d have learned that her approach was to avoid strictly gendering her children in order for them to independently understand their own preferences, not to gender them the opposite way against their will.

“What happened to parental guidance? Where do the parents come in to explain what is socially acceptable , and what behavior will cause them pain and exclusion?”

Ah – the coveted “social acceptance”. It is not my parental responsibility to teach my children to conform, just to appease those whose opinions do not matter. It is my parental responsibility to love and support them whatever.  If such behaviour causes them to be “excluded”, then they’ll form stronger social circles amongst those who will accept them. Simple as. As a teenager, I was very much the excluded, quiet and studious “nerd” type rather than the more coveted physical, competitive and athletic type. We all have our individual skills and personalities, and in the great wide world, they are ALL desirable. After all, where would the likes of Microsoft, Facebook and Google be without the “socially-unacceptable” nerds?

“Articulate, intelligent, and entertaining speaker, for sure. But what did I learn from this? Nothing. By the way, long before feminism (and I am not one), I disliked pink. My daughter wore blue, green, yellow, red. My daughter, on her own, played with Legos and dolls. She constructed tents and played in the woods. Moral direction and involved parents are more important than going on with gender babble.”

I’d say that you don’t actually understand what “feminism” is given that it’s the diametric opposite of “sexism”. If you learned nothing new from that video, that’s a good sign that you are indeed a feminist in its truest context. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.


As Bob Dylan said over 50 years ago: “The Times They Are a-Changing”, and while there will be many who happily and quietly accept that change, there will always be the few who vocally resist. At the end of the day, I want my children to be themselves, not who they believe they should be – I’ve been there, and conforming to “the norm” is not the golden ticket it’s made out to be. It’s taken me a great deal of hard work to de-program myself from all of that, and my mental health and self-esteem is actually better for having done so.

If you’re a parent, just ease off the pedal and don’t seek to influence what your children do or enjoy. It actually takes less effort and you’ll find they’ll love you more for allowing them certain freedoms.

If you’re not a parent, either keep your opinions to yourself or, if you must post your opinions on YouTube, be prepared to have your opinions challenged by those who are speaking from experience.

Before you can man up, you’ve got to calm down

rikki-tedxwarwick4I guess now I’ve opened my mind to something new, I find myself needing to write yet another gender-related post. Just like the last one, I’ve gone through several drafts and re-writes before actually settling on something. The last draft theorised about whether the gender binary was actually obsolete and unimportant, until I watched this TEDx talk by Rikki Arundel about how gender is important. Watching it reinforced some of the points I was making, but also showed me how I was writing from a personal perspective. I’m still learning about gender identities and gender politics, yet Rikki actually lives it. On my website, I’ve sounded out theories and adopted points of view based on what I knew at the time of writing, but I’m always willing to listen to and learn from other people’s experiences.

Although, on paper, our headlines would appear to be at odds with each other, I was actually approaching my post from a different angle so the two were complementary: gender is important emotionally, but it shouldn’t be important socially.

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Nobody calls me “chicken”

Coupled with a post I read on Paging Dr. Nerdlove about defining modern masculinity, the video highlighted just how little flexibility the male sex has in terms of their gender identity and expression and how aggressively it’s policed. Rikki demonstrated this by showing that, in terms of clothing, Women can buy their clothes from Burton’s (a UK Menswear store) and very few would even notice. If a man shopped next door at Dorothy Perkins, he’s putting himself at risk of hatred, humiliation and even violence for breaking the unwritten “rules” of masculinity. Male culture is beset with bullying and fear as a means of policing conformity; fear is also used to maintain the masculine trait of fearlessness – just think of the effects words like “wuss”, “chicken” and “pansy” have.

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Your wife’s going to kill you, but look on the bright side: at least Needles doesn’t think you’re a chicken.

We’re afraid of appearing afraid, so we overcompensate by ramping up the “bravery” (I use inverted commas as this so-called bravery likely involves reckless stupidity) and putting ourselves at far greater risk just to prove a point.These “brave” men are really just so insecure and fragile in their identity, they cannot stand up for themselves against even mild peer pressure.

 

When I opined about the unimportance of gender, I overlooked something important. When you’re locked into a culture where gender is so aggressively policed and you’re not strong enough to give it the finger, your gender expression is a means of survival. I can’t begin to understand what trans people have to go through just to feel comfortable with themselves, something cis people take for granted, but with the personal, social and political turmoil they’d have to face, I can understand why some would become so emotionally attached and protective of the gender identity they’ve worked so hard for.

But despite our emotional attachment to gender, the social attachment should be minuscule at most. This week, I have to do a compliance course for my new employer, and the handbook I was given in advance had a whole section on conduct and discrimination. It was likely the most thorough anti-discrimination policy I’ve ever read. To put it simply, if I openly discriminate against anyone on the grounds of race, colour, sex, age, nationality, religion, sexuality, gender identity or gender expression… I stand a very good chance of getting sacked. This is coming from a major, global organisation. It’s not a radical policy either – every organisation I’ve worked for, whether it be local, national or global, has had a pretty strict anti-discrimination policy. This is why I feel gender should not be important socially – at work, we are required to collaborate and cooperate with each other, so one’s gender is of less importance than one’s skills, abilities, personality and behaviour.

If that’s how we’re expected to behave inside work, what’s so different about behaving that way outside work? What’s so difficult about respecting one’s individuality, or just simply leaving them alone?

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I feel Dr. Nerdlove is correct when they say that some men need to calm down, work on their insecurities and become stronger in a more constructive way though being less quick to anger. While I’m not exactly a prime example of manliness on the outside, I am probably stronger in myself than some of the more “alpha” males. I’m not frightened of or threatened by people who are different to me – at worst, I’m respectfully curious. I’m not concerned about other people’s opinions of me – an opinion is not a fact, and is more reflective of the person making it than it is of me. Most importantly, words are just words. Call me whatever you like – even seemingly insulting names like “lady boy” or “batty man” – just please excuse me if I completely ignore you.

That’s my brand of strength and bravery: brave enough to break the norm, and strong enough to handle the criticism that follows.

 

Gamergate and Genderfluid

Returning briefly to the topic of gender norms, I’ve been reading up on, and watching videos related to, non-binary gender identities. To put it in greatly simplified terms, while we’re all aware of masculine and feminine gender identities, there are a minority of people whose identity doesn’t fit neatly into those categories, so they sit either outside or across the gender binary. There are a vast array of different identities which, as far as I understand, depends on where you identify on the masculine-feminine spectrum, and how that identity moves within that spectrum.

I couldn’t help but notice that the people I watched or read about were predominantly young Americans. Why were there so few Europeans? Why did I find just one gender-fluid person in their forties? The answer, if you believe the critics of such identities, is because of Tumblr. I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Before I continue, I must say that while I don’t claim to be an expert on American culture, it is beamed into our homes on a daily basis so it does hold some influence over here; this is not just some random Brit sticking his oar in. Whatever happens within American culture has a habit of happening over here too. I believe that America is having a bit of an identity crisis – especially when there are some pockets of American culture that are so strongly ring-fenced along gender lines. Take the “Gamergate” controversy for example:

“Observers have generally described Gamergate as part of a long-running culture war against efforts to diversify the traditionally male video gaming community, particularly targeting outspoken women. They cite Gamergate supporters’ frequent harassment of female figures in the gaming industry and its overt hostility toward people involved in social criticism and analysis of video games.” — from Wikipedia

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that where a particular culture (gaming culture in this instance) is so rigorously defined and defended as a “masculine” pursuit that any women who wish to be a part of that culture might begin to exhibit more masculine traits, and may end up believing that their love for gaming comes from some kind of gender dissonance. It’s not as simple as just turning up and saying “Hi – I like playing video games”, even though it really should be. I kind of get the impression that the whole Gamergate controversy was fuelled by some irrational, alpha-male fear of being “beaten by a girl”. Emasculation and losing face rear their ugly heads once more.

From a British/European perspective, something like Gamergate is just baffling – they’re only video games, so why go to war over something whose sole purpose is to entertain? There are millions of Americans who no doubt feel the same way. Likewise, the many different gender identities are seldom understood and rarely uttered over here – not out of ignorance or intolerance, but because it’s not really an issue given that our cultural gender norms are neither as strict nor as aggressively policed. We still have our share of conservatives, but they’re mostly harmless and they’re not given quite so much media attention.

I can see the point made by some critics of these non-binary gender identities in that they merely stick a label onto an expression of one’s own personality, and their definition can be as ambiguous as the binary itself; I can also understand the confusion and the need to define a new identity when society hands you one that just doesn’t work for you. I do believe that such labels are unnecessary – but that is just my opinion. To me, it matters not what you are but who you are, and therefore the only label you really need is your name. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about how people define their gender, it just means that they don’t have to explain or justify it to me – you had me at “hello”!

But, when all is said and done, all these young people are doing is trying to make sense of their complex identities in an equally-complex world – if having an lexicon of names and definitions helps that process, then far be it from me to complain. The easiest thing to do is just let them carry on working it all out amongst themselves.

And let them play video games if they want to.